by Michael K. Honey
W. W. Norton, 2007, 619 pp., $36.00
As I write these words, Martin Luther King Day 2007 has just passed. As the years have gone by—2007 marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of his death—King’s membership in the pantheon of great Americans and the historical uniqueness of the nonviolent protest movement he led appear indisputable. A national holiday is a deserved tribute. Yet, even though the annual memorial is the pinnacle of King’s legacy, it is a burden upon it.
I attended the King Day events in Charleston, South Carolina, which certainly mirrored events throughout the United States. There were the customary parades—the lines of high school, college, and NAACP-sponsored floats—and speeches, sermons, and the usual homilies. I also attended a banquet for college students who had spent the day honoring a legacy of self-sacrifice by engaging in humanitarian activities. As far as grassroots activism goes, the students were wet behind the ears, but their intentions were good.
What was lacking was a sense of tumult and struggle. By that I mean the possibility of engaging in mass demonstrations and justice campaigns comparable to those waged to end minority second-class citizenship and segregation. There is in today’s America no stone wall of injustice as visible and indefensible as segregation was. There are neither mass protests nor mass riots on the level that characterized the 1960s. There is a war in Iraq; but there is no mandatory draft. There are ghettoes as heinously disenfranchised as in King’s day and mass injustices such as the absence of universal health care; but there is little sense of how these ills could possibly be redressed by rallies and protest marches. What King Day lacks is a sense of political realities beating at the door. What results at these commemorations is language with neither political nor rhetorical impetus.
Every King holiday we are reminded that King was “nonviolent.” Too little attention is given to nonviolence as either a philosophy or as a political tactic. It seems the beatific privilege of a saint who above all else possessed a “dream.” King Day is so one-dimensionally upbeat that no one in the audience is likely to learn (or remember) that by the time of his death, King had suffered a major breach with the NAACP, which denounced him in 1967 for his opposition to the Vietnam War. Nor are you likely to hear criticisms of King from within his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, such as Ella Baker’s charge that SCLC depended too much upon King as a charismatic figurehead.
The student banquet that I attended concluded with a reading from King’s texts. The students read in their own voices, sans King’s rhetorical flamboyanc...
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